PPPPositivity, Predictions, Patterns, Plans (Four P's #193)
The Certainty of Uncertainty
Navigating an unknown and uncertain future requires flexibility, patience, resilience, and a touch of hope. It also helps to have good luck.
And mine just ran out...
SOMETHING PERSONAL: Positive Results
There's only so much that we can control in life, and despite my best efforts, "Olympus Has Fallen." That's right, the very last person you know who hasn't gotten COVID has tested positive. Here I am, writing this edition of The Four Ps in isolation. Given my travel, networking, and events schedule, it's pretty remarkable that I haven't gotten it before, let alone on multiple occasions. So how did it happen?
Honestly, I let my guard down just enough at Brandweek 2022 in Miami, which had 1,500 people milling around one hotel, packed into big and small ballrooms, dining in one place, partying on yachts, etc. Yes, I was one of the few who wore a mask during the actual panels and presentations indoors, but I did go unmasked during meals and networking events, so here we are. It didn't take much. I tested positive upon my return to beautiful LaGuardia Airport in New York (yes, for real!), and have been in isolation ever since.
COVID is still a big deal, and it was a rough first few days - cough, congestion, fever, stomach, and muscle cramping... the works. The hardest part has been going another week without seeing my family other than some backyard distancing. I won't put them at risk and have been living in my home office, which is 120 square feet, since last Friday night.
It's frustrating that everyone else has given up when we have the right tools and we're choosing not to use them. Instead, we've let the pseudo-science nutjobs win. The fact that no one is masking anywhere and that I can go back to work after 5 days without having to test is utterly absurd. You should have to test out of quarantine.
The only small bright spot is that I can look forward to a few weeks of COVID immunity... or can I? With a surge in repeat infections, a new variant on the way, and the inability to get my 4th vaccine/booster now for 90 days, I can't afford to abandon the caution that kept me and my family safe and healthy for the past 2.5 years. The potential long-term neurological risks are real, and this might be never-ending. The data we relied on during the first two years of the pandemic is no longer going to help us because most people have stopped testing... and stopped caring. And it's not just limited to COVID. The next time a major global threat or crisis emerges, people will be skeptical, jaded, irritated... The future becomes a whole lot more uncertain if we fail to prepare and plan.
SOMETHING PRACTICAL: Patterns of Predictable Planning
As human beings, we look for patterns and find comfort in predictability. It's why we still check Weather.com even though it's quite often wrong. Entire industries are built on it: insurance, pensions, tech, and real estate. Predicting the future is seriously big business. Yet it’s rarely possible to reliably predict what’s going to happen. Predictions are uncertain, and history doesn’t repeat itself.
Yet planning is part of human nature, and has an evolutionary advantage: it helps us avoid future problems. But the world is so complex that predictions aren’t reliable. And despite the unreliability of predictions, people put too much faith in them. This means that when something unexpected happens, we get caught off guard.
Look no further than the finance industry, which has struggling to get predictions right for a century. More than 100 years ago, Irving Fisher analyzed data to create market performance indicators. Roger Babson applied Newton’s laws of physics to economics, devising ornate graphs. And Warren Persons analyzed past performance: he believed that history would repeat itself, and the future would look like the past. Yet Fisher and Persons failed to predict the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Babson did predict it... but he was he’d been predicting a crash every year.
None of them figured out how to forecast accurately, but they showed that there was money to be made in making predictions – even if they were wrong. And today, the financial forecasting industry is huge. And still often wrong. But it’s safer to acknowledge that we don’t truly know what’s going to happen next. The world is just too broad and too complex to predict with accuracy or certainty.
The same applies to people, too. Our lives don’t fit neatly into categories – and not even DNA can tell us otherwise. A few years ago, I downloaded Muse, a parenting app that uses machine-learning technology to predict what will become of children in the future – and what parents can do now so that their children will become successful. But what is success, anyway? Is it money? Power? Long life, happiness, and health? People just aren't as easy to categorize as we tend to think. We also change. Our experiences, whether involving education, work, friends, family, or whatever else, have a lasting impact on who we are, including on our personalities. People are also complex, not merely complicated, and the systems that make us go are too involved and interdependent to be predictable.
SOMETHING PROFESSIONAL: Blockchain as Cathedrals
In a world where you don’t know what’s going to happen, how do you work out what to do? We experiment. It’s how we learn. Another way is scenario planning, which is great when we need to speculate about what might happen. The idea of a “cathedral project” was coined by the late physicist Stephen Hawking, referring to hugely ambitious projects (like the medieval cathedrals that took generations to build). A successful cathedral project needs to embrace the uncertainty of the future because it will extend into a world we can barely imagine.
Way back when the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) was set up in 1953, it wasn't to solve any problem in particular, but rather to advance human knowledge. 12 countries came together to fund it, but details of exactly how it would work, or when it would deliver any particular results, were left open. And one of the many results: the internet.
We're entering a new phase of that technology revolution: Web3 (or what Rishad Tobaccowala calls "The Third Connected Age of the Internet"). And many smart, dedicated, creative people are working on projects that will define what this world becomes. Specialized and generalized tools, blockchain applications, hardware, software... with an unclear understanding of the ROI. Hence some of the skepticism from more traditional players in the space. As the VC market refocuses from crypto-based projects to more expansive applications for blockchain (ie: marketing tech), the questions of short-term and long-term KPIs will undoubtedly be asked.
When CERN sought funding for its Large Hadron Collider, which cost billions, many potential backers asked what the return on investment would be. But it was an experiment – the results were unknown. All Cathedral projects share a willingness to adapt to the times and embrace an unknowable future. Uncertainty is no reason to be unambitious. Blockchain-building feels like many cathedral projects at once. Ticketing on Flow will be massive. Meta is shelling out $150MM to construct schools in the metaverse. And after the "merge" last week, Ethereum seems poised to become a leader for generations to come (even if Starbucks chose Polygon for its new loyalty program).
No matter which blockchain marketers plan to build for the next generation of consumer and community engagement (and there are some wonderful examples already), the rules of engagement and turnkey models are getting clearer, and the barriers to entry are disappearing.
SOMETHING POLITICAL: The Age of Uncertainty
Over the past week, one of my COVID-isolation binge shows has been an alternative history show on Apple"+, "For All Mankind." The series plays out the different path that history would have taken if the Soviet Union won the space race to the moon. It's fascinating to think about how the Cold War would have turned out, who would be elected President every four years, and the different technological outcomes that may or may not have come out of the space program. In reality, NASA engineers and flight planners rehearsed every scenario and challenged each other with games of uncertainty.
Uncertainty is hard-wired into us – but we can still take action and plan for a better future. Yet science can only take us so far. Predictions are so hard to get right, but it’s also a part of what makes us human. In actual, real history, the AIDS epidemic got worse and worse because the Reagan administration failed to act, but also because doctors and scientists worked too slowly to find a solution. Progress accelerate when the people who were affected by HIV and AIDS got more directly involved in the process. Once people with AIDS were invited to participate in decision-making at every level, progress on drug treatments picked up.
With climate change today, the crisis is both global and personal. Yet critics and skeptics respond better when the massive scope and impact are not presented globally, but more personally. When children like Greta Thunberg make arguments about climate change – which will affect them even more than those who are currently adults – people will naturally pay more attention. When billionaires give away their riches to fight climate change, people pay even more attention.
The current divisions in America are not going to be solved by re-electing the same old white men to Congress (which is why I'm disappointed in my own district's two congressional candidates being old white men). The average age of our representatives is older than it's ever been in history, yet these are the people whose decisions impact our future. Six months ago, a "red wave" GOP congressional flip seemed all but assured. We're on the downward slope of a recession. War still rages in Ukraine. Immigrants are being relocated from Florida to Massachusetts in an eerily similar way to how Jews were relocated by Germans before formal concentration camps were established.
Yet here we are, less than two months from Election Day, and anything could still happen. The hard work has yet to begin. We can't aim for perfection; perfection implies that everything can be carefully quantified. But that’s never truly possible. Because, as humans, we’re a lot more than just a set of data. We’re complex, unpredictable beings, and the unknowability of our future is what makes us who we are.